Ambition

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For writing inspiration, I’ve turned to a book that I have not yet read: Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by Davis Whyte. It sounded like a book I would thoroughly enjoy. It was recommended by a friend who loves words at least as much as I do. It received excellent reviews.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who did not impress me with Eat, Pray, Love, but who won me over to her engaging writing style with Big Magic, said of Whyte’s book, “Beautiful, elegant, tiny essays on the consoling power of words, written by one of my favorite living poets…” She then suggested, “Keep this book by your bedside forever. I know that I will.” So, I purchased it, and added it to a short stack of similar books that are good for reading before sleep.

Bedside books should not be “page-turners” that will keep me awake and reading to figure out the twists of a heart-pounding plot. They should be thoughtful, but not overly thought-provoking. I try to avoid books, at bedtime, that will keep sleep at bay while I plot revenge, shake in fear, search for solutions, or even just mull things over for hours. What I am reading affects me deeply; I have to be careful. My stack of bedside books often includes art books, memoirs, and poetry.

For several months, now, David Whyte’s book has sat, unread, within the stack. For no reason, other than that my attention was pulled to another book. Last week, I picked it up again, and flipped it open to the table of contents. There, like a gift, was a list of words, in alphabetical order.

I’ve been struggling, lately, for topics to write about. In the nine years that I’ve been regularly writing for this blog, I have published more than eleven hundred essays. I have pulled ideas from books on writing, current events, my family history and my own life. To the point that I can hardly begin to relate a humorous personal anecdote without a hand going up to stop me. “Already know about it,” they’ll explain, “I read your blog!”

I’ve reported on the antics, health and demise of several pets. I have led readers through one household repair, painting project or organizational undertaking after another. I’m sorry (or maybe NOT sorry!) to report that my life is not so exciting as to provide a steady stream of writing material.

So, I was happy to find a whole list of new topics on the Table of Contents page of Whyte’s book. All the better that I have not read his essays. I wouldn’t be intimidated by his brilliance, nor accidentally plagiarize his interpretations. I decided to deliberately avoid reading what he’d written about each word, until I had completed my own writing.

Last week, I started with the first word: Alone. That worked out fine. The next word? Ambition. Ambition has proven to be an unreasonably difficult topic for me. I hear voices, always negative. “…Not showing much ambition,” I hear. And, on the other side of the spectrum, “That’s a little overly ambitious, don’t you think?”

Who spoke to me this way? I have wracked my brain to know. My laziness as a child was well-recognized within my family. I rarely wanted to be involved in household projects, and had to be forced to do my share of regular chores. I had a hundred different ways to get out of work. Still, my father would not use the word “ambition.” “Show a little gumption,” is how he’d put it. My mother would not hesitate to say “lazy.”

As an adult, I’d present elaborate ideas for house plans or home remodels to my husband or others who might be called upon to help. I was often told that my ideas were beyond reach, either because of time or money constraints. Likewise, when I approached professors and mentors with plans for research papers and art projects, I was often encouraged to narrow my scope a little. It’s easy, on paper, to push to extremes, and I often do. Still, I don’t recall being told I was “overly ambitious.”

Clearly, though I don’t know why, this word holds a negative connotation in my mind. I’ve struggled with it all week. I was tempted, but resisted the impulse, to read Whyte’s essay. I consulted the dictionary and the thesaurus. I considered just skipping over the word. Who would know? But, just two words in to my list of topics, that would be a bad precedent to set. I continued to puzzle over it. Ambition. It shouldn’t be so hard!

Yesterday, the election results were called. Like all of the world, I watched the process unfold, and I tuned in last evening to listen to what our newly elected leaders had to say. Within the inspirational, joyful and exuberant speech of Kamala Harris, our history-making, ground-breaking, brand-new vice-president-elect, came this advice: “Dream with Ambition.”

Dream with ambition! I wrote it down immediately! It feels exactly right! From now on, when unknown but persistent voices lead me to believe that ambition is a negative idea, always too little or too much, I’ll replace those thoughts with this concept. It’s always okay to dream big! Dream with ambition!

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